The South Asia Channel

Keeping control of bad choices

The Pentagon has just quietly released the redacted results of an inquiry into allegations of human rights abuses by U.S.-sponsored armed groups in Afghanistan. They were investigating allegations made in a report I co-authored while working for Human Rights Watch, about the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and other government-backed security forces, Just Don’t Call it ...

MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images

The Pentagon has just quietly released the redacted results of an inquiry into allegations of human rights abuses by U.S.-sponsored armed groups in Afghanistan. They were investigating allegations made in a report I co-authored while working for Human Rights Watch, about the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and other government-backed security forces, Just Don’t Call it a Militia, published this past September. It’s unusual for NGOs to elicit such a response — 21 officials spending five weeks in 45 locations — and tempting to think it signals how seriously they took the report.

Gen. John R. Allen, the Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, does appear to be committed to greater transparency and a more constructive relationship with NGOs. But the Pentagon’s concern with our report is probably more reflective of the centrality of ALP to its strategy in the country, particularly its exit strategy. Last week, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Adm. William McRaven, said he wanted to expand ALP from 10,000 to 30,000 men, and extend it beyond its stated shelf life of 2015. A more cynical explanation for the investigation could be the need to avert triggering the Leahy law, under which U.S. assistance to military units is cut when there is credible information of gross human rights abuses.

Human rights abuses are almost inevitable when injecting lightly trained forces into fractured communities that tend to lie at the edge of government control, where impunity is rampant. Significant efforts have been made to safeguard against the risk of creating lawless militias, but what compounds this risk is that it’s not just the ALP that the U.S. and Afghan governments are backing. There’s also the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), the Critical Infrastructure Program (CIP), the Interim Security Infrastructure (ISCI), Community Based Security Solutions (CBSS), and the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3). And these are just the groups with acronyms. Beyond them are a myriad of informal militias supported by Afghan intelligence forces, provincial officials, warlords, and unregistered private security forces, as well as the reintegrated former insurgents who are allowed to keep their arms.

Nobody is counting. And there is no demobilization strategy for these groups.

As these groups have expanded, there has been an increase in reports of abuse, including killings, rapes, unauthorized raids, and extortion. The recent investigation by the U.S. military largely focused on abuses by the ALP, and wholly or partially confirmed many of the allegations made in the Human Rights Watch report. It dismissed a significant number of allegations as "not credible," without providing evidence.  These include rejecting claims that a notorious militia of Nur-ul-Haq working with U.S. Special Forces in Baghlan is associated with the insurgent Hezb-i Islami, or with criminality. (Haq is described as an ALP commander by provincial officials, though his group may not be an official one). They also rejected the suggestion that Special Operations Forces "have a poor reputation in Herat province," where they were responsible for one of the bloodiest mistakes by U.S. airstrikes, in August 2008, partly caused by their alleged alliance with abusive and rival criminal elements. Other allegations are dismissed as unverifiable because Human Rights Watch would not breach the confidentiality of witnesses’ names and contacts.

More encouragingly, the investigation makes some welcome recommendations, including introducing procedures for disciplining and firing ALP officers, exercising greater precautions when placing ALP units in faction-riven areas, and suggesting that Gen. Allen lead a quarterly review of ALP to assess problem units and abuse allegations.

Fundamentally though, the investigating team concludes that ALP works, and that its critics do not appreciate the security dividends generated by the militias’ presence. However, this depends on your definition of security. The U.S. military measures security through its daily data stream of attack levels. By this metric, ALP and groups like it may improve security. Some communities agree, and welcome local security forces as the most immediate way of holding back Taliban incursions. But in many parts of the country there is alarm about the rapid reactivation of old commander networks, and concern about the potential for civil war. These fears are fueled by the looming withdrawal of the bulk of international forces by the end of 2014, the prospect of economic collapse as the foreign funds dry out, increasing ethnic tensions, deep divisions over the prospect of talks with the Taliban, and uncertainty about the interest of the Taliban leadership in a political settlement.

Sadly, Afghanistan only seems to have a series of bad choices ahead. In this context, ALP may be a flawed but necessary tool, at least in some areas. But partnering with notoriously abusive commanders is a dangerous strategy. Since U.S. forces began closely partnering with the Kandahari Police Commander Abdul Raziq, whom they described as an "Afghan folk hero," his star has risen. Raziq’s crimes have been well reported, and may include extra-judicial executions. Several U.S. officials have privately told me they’d like to see him removed, but President Karzai appears to resent the volte-face. Recently a notorious private militia commander linked to U.S. Special Forces, Azizullah, was made head of ALP in Paktika. There will be many more like Raziq and Azizullah with track records of abuse, whose power in the coming months and years will become more and more entrenched, beyond the point of return.

The United States should respect its own regulations about not supporting known rights abusers, curb the relentless drive to expand armed groups in Afghanistan, and instead focus on increasing quality and capacity. In addition to reining in the chaotic proliferation of armed groups, Afghanistan and its allies should develop demobilization plans before the 2014 transition. Otherwise, by the time the U.S. military has mostly withdrawn, it could leave behind tens of thousands of armed men that most Afghans can’t identify, who can abuse their authority with impunity, and whose allegiances are often to their own commanders, not to their communities or the state.

The proliferation of abusive militias is not most Afghans’ definition of security, even when threatened by the brutality of the Taliban. But with more patience and precaution from the Afghan government and the U.S. military, the choices may not yet be so grim.

Rachel Reid is the co-author of "Just Don’t Call it a Militia: Impunity, Militias, and the ‘Afghan Local Police.’" She is now the Senior Policy Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Open Society Foundations.

Rachel Reid is the Open Society Foundations’ advocacy manager for the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. She was based in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch from 2008 to 2011. Before her move into human rights work, she spent more than a decade with the BBC.

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